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Good news: fatal shootings are now less common in Australia, NZ, Canada and even the US

Despite declining gun fatalities, there should be no room for complacency in Australia, with an estimated 260,000 illegal guns in Australia – including this MP5K 9mm machine gun, seized in Queensland in 2013. Dan Peled/AAP

Here’s a good news story you probably haven’t read about before: numbers of fatal shootings are falling in Australia, and have been for around 30 years. And we’re not alone.

The rate of fatal shootings has been declining in New Zealand, Canada and – most surprisingly – even the United States over the past few decades. So what’s going on that’s leading to those improved firearm fatality rates? And why is it so hard to have a sensible discussion about effective ways to tackle gun violence?

Judging from the news, you could be forgiven for thinking gun-related murders in all those countries are soaring – and we have seen some tragic, high-profile cases of fatal shootings recently, particularly in the US where there has been a spate of police shootings.

But looking at the longer-term trends, the official statistics offer a different outlook. And interestingly, the downwards trends in firearm homicide rates – especially in Australia, New Zealand and Canada – look fairly similar, despite those countries having very different approaches to gun control.

Ideology too often trumps evidence

Unfortunately, Australian firearms policy is seldom scrutinised in the way that other policies routinely are. Ideology – both pro- and anti-gun – often trumps facts.

This stifles debate and prevents us from thinking about how other countries have tackled gun violence.

For example, both Canada and New Zealand abandoned universal longarm (rifle and shotgun) registration. Instead, they redirected their resources into high-risk populations and situations, such as disadvantaged young men involved in the illicit drug trade.

Those two countries also strengthened social services and worked hard to build relationships between police and communities most at risk of gun violence.

Australia’s hot spots for gun violence

In Australia, fatal shootings mainly occur in a small number of urban crimehotspots”. Typically, the perpetrators and their victims are young men from disenfranchised minority communities. They are often motivated by drugs, turf or other rivalries.

Guns seized by NSW Police in a 2014 raid. NSW Police/AAP

Australian law enforcement agencies want to end that cycle of violence and take guns out of the hands of criminals. But a recent Senate inquiry on gun-related violence found that nobody knows quite how many illegal guns are in Australia, or where they are coming from.

Crime guns are likely to come from a wide range of sources. Information held by law enforcement agencies about legally owned firearms is unreliable and of limited use when it comes to understanding the illegal market.

The Australian Crime Commission conservatively estimated that, in 2012, there were 260,000 unaccounted-for guns in Australia – more than 250,000 rifles and shotguns and around 10,000 handguns. But these are not necessarily in the hands of violent criminals and estimates are inherently inaccurate.

A missed opportunity

Although gun laws are a state responsibility, this month’s Senate report on gun violence recommends ongoing amnesties, under which illegally held guns can be surrendered to police, and better data sharing between agencies. These are commendable suggestions – but they are unlikely to help reduce gun violence.

The Senate inquiry took almost a year and its reporting date was extended twice. Yet for all that time and effort, and despite its ambitious title – the ability of Australian law enforcement authorities to eliminate gun-related violence in the community – the final report contains a glaring gap.

It did not explore social, economic and cultural factors that contribute to gun violence. It beggars belief that a search for comprehensive, evidence-based prevention strategies was not seen as a political priority.

Instead, the inquiry’s terms of reference focused heavily on whether theft of legal firearms contributes significantly to the criminal market, and whether more gun bans and laws are needed. The answer was: no.

At least Australia’s politicians have looked at evidence about what will not work to reduce gun violence. But the lengthy Senate inquiry missed a golden opportunity to look at evidence about what can work to reduce gun violence.

Police display an illegal firearm and ammunition seized in a raid in Western Australia. Rebecca Le May/AAP

What more can Australia do to prevent gun violence?

Fatal shootings have fallen, and that is good news, even if the reasons for those declines are still not entirely clear. But more can be done to reduce violence.

While law enforcement strategies to seize illegal firearms, target gun traffickers and prosecute gun crimes are an important part of the solution, they are not the whole solution.

Strategies that have performed best to reduce gun violence bring together police, justice and corrective system workers (such as probation and parole officers), social workers and health professionals, and representatives from communities where gun crime commonly occurs.

Among other things, successful strategies emphasise the importance of partnership building with communities that are disproportionately affected by gun violence. They are also proportional to the problem, place-based and consider the broader socio-economic and cultural context in which crime occurs.

Successful programs incorporate behavioural and substance abuse treatment for offenders and support for their families and communities, along with prevention efforts such as mentoring, culture- and gender-specific interventions, and life skills training for at-risk youth. Diversion programs that give youths viable alternatives to gang and drug involvement have also shown promise.

Violence prevention is complex. Decisions need to be made about which among many competing priorities is the best investment of finite resources. Social services or tougher sentences? A war on drugs or harm reduction? Prison rehabilitation programs or more police? It is rarely as simple as one or the other.

Striking the right balance takes political maturity, honesty and the ability to resist quick fixes. Catchy anti- or pro-gun soundbites like “illegal guns started out legal” and “if you outlaw guns only outlaws have guns” are no substitute for rigorous debate.

The Australian community deserves evidence-informed policy. And that means that all of us – not just politicians – have a responsibility to look at the evidence about what works best to prevent violence.

* Dr Samara McPhedran will be available for an author Q&A on Thursday April 16 between 1-2 pm. Please leave any questions or comments for her below. As she will be trying to respond to as many comments as possible, please make it clear if you would like a response from Dr McPhedran, and ideally keep it short and sharp to make it easier to respond.

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